Joan Didion’s novel, Play It As It Lays, begins with its conclusion—Maria in a neuropsychiatric hospital—and traces the events that led her there: a crumbling marriage, a failing career, a hospitalized daughter, and an abortion. Her story unfolds in 1960’s Los Angeles against a larger backdrop of nihilism. An actress, Maria sees her life as just another role to play; its scenes are as arbitrary as those of a film and have no purpose beyond themselves. This nagging sense of meaninglessness culminates when she finds out she is pregnant with a lover’s child and is forced to get an abortion by her husband Carter, a risky and humiliating ordeal in pre-Roe v. Wade America. What begins as a desperate attempt to assign meaning to a harsh, inscrutable world ends as the realization that nothing “applies.”
Maria is continually haunted by a sense of nothingness. Conversation between her and her husband is described as form without content, a meaningless script, “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.” When she confirms her pregnancy with her doctor, she considers contacting Les Goodwin, her lover and probable father of the child. She decides against it as “when she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distinct from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep.” All her romantic acquaintances—whether aborted, consummated, or hypothetical—blend together, stripping each of them of its significance. Devoid of meaningful relationships, it seems to Maria that “her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or endings, no point beyond itself.” The only thing that Maria does see a point to is her four year old daughter Kate, who is in a psychiatric unit for undisclosed reasons and with whom Maria has only limited visiting hours.
For Kate and in spite of everything else, Maria resists the pull of nihilism for a while. She tries to preserve meaning by creating “signs,” turning ordinary things into talismans with the hope of exerting a degree of control over her life. When she starts sleeping outside “she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnamable (she did not know what it was she feared but it had to do with empty sardine cans in the sink, vermouth bottles in the wastebaskets, slovenliness past the point of return).” To combat the downward spiral she feels sleeping outside represents, she makes a point of using beach towels as blankets because “they signified how temporary the arrangement was.” After Carter instructs her to get an abortion, Maria begins to sleep inside again “between white sheets, hoping dimly that the white sheets would effect some charm, that she would wake in the morning and find them stained with blood.” “To give the charm every opportunity” she also wears “white crepe pajamas and no underwear to a party” and throws out a “full box of Tampax” because “to be without Tampax was to insure bleeding, to sleep naked between white sheets was to guarantee staining.” Through these signs and charms, Maria preserves a sense of cause and effect. Though perhaps superstitious and irrational to the outside observer, they show that Maria still believes that her world can be made sense of.
Maria’s search for meaning, however, is aborted with her unborn child. Cause and effect are obliterated as her perception of reality is radically decontextualized. As she and the doctor arrive at the house where the procedure is to take place, she realizes that “in the past few minutes he had significantly altered her perception of reality: she saw now that she was not a woman on her way to have an abortion. She was a woman parking a Corvette outside a tract house while a man in white pants talked about buying a Camaro. There was no more to it than that.” Every moment becomes stripped of its meaning as each becomes indistinguishable from the next: “no moment more or less important than any other moment, all the same: the pain as the doctor scraped signified nothing beyond itself, no more constituted the pattern of her life than the movie on television in the living room of this house in Encino.” The experience feels no more significant or real to Maria than the movie playing outside. The homogenization that nullified the significance of her relationships has extended to the moments that make up her life, rendering it all meaningless.
After the abortion, Maria sees it all as pointless. As she puts it, “she had left the point in a bedroom in Encino.” After a stay in the Californian desert, Maria is hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital where she reveals the extent of her nihilism with stark clarity. We are brought back to the opening lines “’What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.” Where she once grappled with the meaning of signs, she now refuses to even bother asking questions. Like Iago, she explains, “I am what I am. To look for reasons is beyond the point.” As she writes on her psychiatric surveys and repeats throughout the opening chapter, “nothing applies.” To her, life is a game whose points do not add up and the only reason she keeps playing is her daughter Kate.
While the possible implication that children constitute the “point” of women’s lives is problematic, Play It As It Lays remains a haunting work that grippingly grapples with the human implications of nihilism. Recurring images of white and the empty Californian desert paradoxically give nullity a physical presence and we are given a glimpse into Maria’s vision of a world stripped bare of meaning. Film suggests a metaphor for a reality that is arbitrary and has no application beyond itself, presenting a modern twist on not only Iago but also Shakespeare’s characterization of all the world as just a stage in his play As You Like It. Here, however, the game is played not “as you like it” but simply “as it lays.”
Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934 in Sacramento, California. Her first novel Run, River was published in 1963; later novels include Play It as It Lays (1970), A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). Her essay collections include Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). Didion’s writing explores disorder and personal and social unrest. She has also co-written a number of screenplays with her husband.